“I was born a poor black child”: One Steve Martin Joke Made Universal $100 Million

The Jerk was a box office smash despite having a relatively small $4 million budget, earning $100 million worldwide.

“I was born a poor black child”: One Steve Martin Joke Made Universal $100 Million


  • Steve Martin played a homeless man sleeping in a stairwell in Los Angeles and narrating his life directly to the camera in The Jerk.
  • The Jerk originated from a well-known joke and grossed $100 million at the box office.
  • The Jerk faced a lot of obstacles while getting made, so Martin got help from another comedian.
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Steve Martin, the five-time Grammy Award winner, is a legend who rose to prominence through stage and film appearances. One of those first roles was in The Jerk, a 1979 classic comedy film, directed by Carl Reiner. Together, Martin and Reiner subtly employed a high level of comedy to tell a tale about a charming fool.


In the movie, the comedian-actor, 78, played Navin R. Johnson, a homeless man sleeping in a stairwell in Los Angeles and narrating his life directly to the camera.

Well, did you know that The Jerk not only originated from a well-known joke that won over audiences but also achieved the incredible feat of grossing $100 million at the box office? Although it was unquestionably the best Steve Martin movie and one of the best comedies, the movie also struggled greatly to get made.

Steve Martin
Steve Martin

Read also: 5 Saddest Things About Steve Martin’s Charles-Haden Savage From ‘Only Murders In The Building’

Steve Martin’s The Jerk: The Birth of an Unforgettable Joke

According to Consequence Of Sound, co-screenwriters Carl Gottlieb and Steve Martin had no idea for The Jerk when they began working on a project for Paramount Pictures. The two, who were friends and writing partners, had contracts with the studio for a few projects, but they were basically at a loss for ideas. 

According to Gottlieb’s statement to Consequence of Sound:


“There was no idea. We sat there every day. We had a nice little office in the writers building right on the Paramount lot with a couple of new pencils and yellow pads and we’d go into work every morning and look at each other and say ‘Well, what about…’ And then a couple of weeks went by and we didn’t have anything.”

Steve Martin
Steve Martin

Steve Martin was an up-and-coming comedian at the time, and he had a devoted following. The first person to notice him was the late David Picker, the then Paramount executive, in 1977. This was how the Primetime Emmy Award-winning actor ended up getting the film as Gottlieb explained:

“Steve was still an unknown quantity on film, and that was the reason for The Absent-Minded Waiter short, which I directed, and starred Buck Henry and Terri Garr. The theory, and this was really good thinking by David Picker, was ‘We do it as a short, we attach it to one of our big pictures, we give it to our exhibitors for nothing. But the film audience gets to see Steve Martin on the big screen and they will see his star quality and that will build an audience for him.’”

In the end, Martin’s viewers were the ones who gave Gottlieb the inspiration for The Jerk as the latter further explained: 

“Then Steve one day said, ‘Y’know, there’s a line in my act that always gets a laugh, even if the act isn’t doing that well.’ I said, ‘Well, what’s the line?’ He says ‘I was born a poor black child.’ So, that landed in the room with significant impact. And we said, ‘Wow. But what if you were? What would that be like? Steve Martin as a poor black child?’”

You may also like: ‘We’re a Little Dismayed’: Steve Martin Frustrated Over Selena Gomez Getting Snubbed at the Emmys


How A Paramount Change Led To Serious Problems?

Steve Martin
Steve Martin

Carl Gottlieb and Steve Martin finally had a starting point. The first draft they produced, which was based on the Another Nice Mess actor’s funniest joke, was actually quite good. But right around the time they finished the first draft of the script, Paramount Pictures experienced a significant change. Gottlieb shared with Consequence Of Sound:

“Like what usually happens in Hollywood when a new team comes in, they scrap all the old projects and they want to develop their own slate, so they get credit for it.”

However, the project had been saved by Martin’s manager, but there were still a few significant obstacles to overcome as Gottlieb stated:

“I was unavailable to do the next rewrite. I did the first couple of drafts with Steve. And we had failed to move the powers that be at Paramount and we were going over to another studio. So I wasn’t around to do the rewrite. So they got another comedian friend of Steve’s named Michael Elias.”

Steve Martin's The Jerk
Steve Martin’s The Jerk

Finally, they eventually received more help from renowned director, Carl Reiner. The Jerk went on to launch Martin’s film career, thanks to a rescue from Universal and fresh partnerships.


The film is regarded as having been a box office smash despite having been made on a relatively small $4 million budget, earning $100 million globally.

You can stream The Jerk on Netflix. 

Read also: ‘Not Going To Look for Any More Movies’: Comedy Legend Steve Martin Announces Retirement, Says ‘Only Murders in the Building’ To Be His Final Work


Written by Siddhika Prajapati

Articles Published: 1510

Between everyday normalities and supernatural abnormalities, Siddhika Prajapati finds the story in everything. Literature Honors Graduate and Post-Graduated in Journalism (from Delhi University), her undying need to deduce the extraordinary out of simplicity makes her a vibrant storyteller.

Serving as a Senior Entertainment Writer at Fandom Wire and having written over 1500 pieces, Siddhika has also worked with multiple clients and projects over the years, including Indian Express, India Today, and Outlook Group.

Who knows, maybe your next favorite persona on the screen will be crafted by her.